Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

I don’t know anything about classical music. I’ve played some — back in my mercifully short career as a high school flutist. I’ve sung a fair bit. I have favorite pieces. There are symphonies I love, composers who generally never let me down, but I don’t actually know anything. I haven’t studied, don’t understand intricacies or what makes one piece speak to me and another leave me cold. I’m that classic, “I know what I like,” kind of fan.

I could fix my ignorance, of course, take classes that would give me the background and vocabulary for all the things I don’t know how to say about this music. I don’t mind my not-knowing, however. Not really. I like coming to this music following my heart, my emotional response, rather than paying close attention to my head.

Last year and this — and again for next year — I have bought not one but two subscriptions to concert series at Carnegie Hall. And they’ve been all classical music all the time. Last year, one of the series was all Russian composers, and that was pretty fabulous. I hadn’t really thought about having a particular love for the Russians, but apparently my musical tastes run similarly to my early literature-reading tastes. Give me the Russians (shame to think this is something I’d have in common with THOTUS)!

The final concert of my subscriptions for this season, the last of my Philadelphia Orchestra performances, was Leonard Bernstein, Mozart, and Robert Schumann. Of the three, as much as I have discovered myself as a lover of Mozart (I resisted at first because it seemed too easy, too obvious — he was someone I was supposed to like), the Bernstein and the Schumann won me, with the Bernstein resonating most deeply.

Just as I love choral singing — my one voice melded into a crowd of others — I love orchestral music, love the singular pieces all playing together to make a whole. And the beautiful playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the dynamic and gracious conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin doesn’t disappoint.

Favorite moment? At the end of the first movement of the Bernstein, the percussionist is called upon to use maracas (what does the scoring look like for maracas, I wonder) … and he picks them up … and uses them as drumsticks to play the timpani!! That, truly, was everything. Every last thing.

* * *

Not long ago, I posted on Facebook about how self-doubt creeps in on me, makes me question whether I’m really a writer at all, whether I should just quit messing around and use my time more productively. Watching the orchestra, I wondered if that doubt is fueled, in part, by the solitary echo chamber that is writing. As a member of an orchestra, you can see and hear your work every time you take up your instrument. Your place in the larger whole comes back to you as harmony, rhythm, a full and beating heart of sound. And watching the Philadelphia Orchestra reminded me of some of the self-care I know my creative self needs, things I haven’t been making time for.

I like writing in community. I don’t mean that I like working on group writing projects (although that sounds like fun and could someone please propose one for me to join you on?). No, I mean that I like being around other writers while I’m working. I like basking in and soaking up that creative energy. I like not being alone, like working next to folks who get what I’m trying to do, having those folks be right there when frustration or procrastination hit.

And I know this. But somehow I allow myself to forget. Over and over. Somehow I set aside this vital truth and, instead of finding more ways to write in community, I isolate myself so I can get some work done … and I grind myself down smaller and smaller until I get almost nothing done at all.

My smart, talented lovely friend Lisa wrote a manifesto for nurturing her creativity while nurturing her new child. She drafted it on a dramatic length of butcher paper and hung it on her wall. I’m thinking bout that now, the larger-than-life, in everyone’s face commitment of that butcher paper. I’m thinking I need something similarly large, large like the poster I’ll be making of the Joe Louis fist, large enough that I can’t help but see it and can’t possibly ignore or forget about it.

It needs to say obvious things like “write in community,” but also things like “keep your Carnegie subscription,” “go to the singalong Messiah,” “go to the theater.”

And you’ll notice how few of those things have specifically to do with pen and paper, with me actually doing some writing. But I think that’s another part of the point. Because yes, I need to sit down and work — with other people when that’s possible — but I also need to feed my creativity. When Julia Cameron wrote about “filling the well” in The Artist’s Way, she wasn’t talking about writing every minute of every day. She was talking about the exact opposite, about the fact that we can’t create if the well is dry, if we never give ourselves the chance to take in beauty, nature, music … whatever is going to replenish our spirits so that we can sit down and do the work.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is definitely a well-filler, but my Carnegie season is finished. I won’t be back in my second tier box until the fall. But there are so many things I can do in the mean time. I have a whole summer of well-filling ahead of me, a whole summer to remember to make artist dates and friend dates … and writing dates. I have a friend with whom I have semi-regular writing dates. First summer task: do a better job of making those dates more “regular” than “semi.” It’s a start.


(There was no way I could resist using that title. As soon as I started writing this post, it came flying up from the deepest depths of my memory. I couldn’t even remember what songs OMD were known for, but the name was right there, ready for me to scoop it up. I went to The Google, and was reminded of If You Leave. Oh yes, it all comes back to me now …)

In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind. I committed to writing an essay a week … but fell behind behind pretty quickly. I’m determined to catch up, committed to 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.

10 thoughts on “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

  1. there’s so much music I listen to and don’t know the name of the song or the name of the group. Thank you for letting me know about Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and thank you for reminding all of us of the need to refresh our creativity in whatever way work, whether music, nature, art…


    1. Thanks, Sonia. I’m not sure how important it is for everyone to know about OMD, but I’ve always loved that name and it resurfaced so quickly when I started writing about that concert, so …


  2. Oh, hello!!! ❤ I've been looking at that butcher paper manifesto lately. For awhile I stopped, and it just became a part of our apartment, but rereading bits of it as I'm cleaning up or just walking from room to room has been a good thing. In fact, even just seeing the boldness of my line in my handwriting has been a good reminder.

    I've actually thought a little about the creative act of playing in an orchestra versus the solo act of, well, performing solo, because while Erik and I both have background in a solo instrument (piano for us both, but for him also violin), unlike me, he's played in an orchestra. It does seem like a very different experience… and the goals are different too, and the level of expertise you bring can also be different. (Erik is a far better pianist than violinist, but he was still good enough for the youth orchestra.)

    It's also been interesting for me lately to think about music and musicality and how nurturing it is. In my adult life, I rarely make music, whereas up until I left college I was playing piano nearly every day or at least at every chance. But a few months ago I signed Ada up for a music "class" for toddlers — basically we parents just sing along with the teacher, and we all bang and shake and hit instruments — and I've been surprised at how much *I* love it. And I've been surprised at how awkward and clearly uncomfortable the vast majority of the other parents are with things like singing in rounds, remembering simple melodies, playing and singing simultaneously. Clearly not everyone grew up with music the way I did. And clearly I need more music-making in my life!


    1. I haven’t done my manifesto yet, but I’ve got plans. And I hear you about it just becoming part of the apartment decor … until it doesn’t, until you become aware of seeing it as you move through your rooms. That makes so much sense for me.

      It’s interesting how the other parents are awkward and uncomfortable. That’s too bad. Maybe being in the group will unlock something for them, as well. When my niece was an infant, my brother use to sing her non-lullaby lullabies. He would sing songs he liked, not getting caught up in whether it was a “real” lullaby, and I really liked that. My favorite of the things I heard him sing her was James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James.” Maybe those uncomfortable parents should focus more on music they like and the fact that their baby is definitely not going to be judging them, will just enjoy the attention and the sound and the love behind it! 🙂


  3. Pingback: Sitting alone, writing together. – if you want kin, you must plant kin …

  4. Pingback: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Redux — Balm for Sadness Edition – if you want kin, you must plant kin …

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